Life During Wartime--The Balkans, 1994
Pages from the Journal: Serbia, Macedonia, Albania
Wednesday October 26, 1994
Deni rode me on his motorbike to the bus station way out of town and set me off on this four hour, not-so-many kilometers journey south near the coast. The ride was not bad at all--but I've heard that Vlore to Sarande is 7-8 hours and it can't be more than 100km. To Gjirokaster on the Greek border is said to be equally ugly. To go down and then come back up again? Ugh!
I complain a lot and yet I've been so lucky. First of all, after five days here I think I've spent more on postcards and postage than anything else. Second, today I took a risk to visit people who don't know me and didn't know I was coming, and here I am, welcome in Henry's home.
I went to City Hall here to look for Elaine Reed, a Peace Corps volunteer (a "PCV" as they call themselves) and though she had no idea I was coming and that I was a friend of a friend of a friend …she was nonplussed to see me, but apologized that she was going to be gone all day and then to Tirana tomorrow. She suggested I wait an hour when Henry would come around. I did so, hovering in the halls like a stalker, and when Henry arrived he couldn't be less surprised or put off. I spat out "You don't know me, but, uh..." and before I could finish he said, "Need a place to crash?"
Henry! He's 38, a former PCV in Honduras, but since then has used the Peace Corps hotline newsletter to get jobs in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Philippines, Turkey and now Albania teaching English.
Vlore looks depressing. EVERY building is decrepit. A sturdy statue stands, but all edifices are in an advanced state of decay. We left the main drag, walked around mounds of garbage, through the smells and finally inside to Henry's nice, comfortable place.
Albania is really filthy. There's no way around it and it needs to be said. Garbage is everywhere. E-ve-ry-where. I saw the blackest, muckiest river today, garbage lining both sides of the banks. Solid garbage. The reedy grass was black. The water was black and oozed a thickness. All that flowed to the sea. Yum!
Tirana is really dusty and dirty, rivaling Kathmandu. The noise of people constantly blowing their horns is reminiscent of Nepal, too, except quite often here people honk to get the attention of someone they know. All of Albania seems like a small village. Everyone knows everyone else. That dude who took me from the airport to Tirana was an average Joe, but he was constantly passing by someone he had to blow the horn and say hello to.
I surmised that this is why in Tirana there are so many ugly cafes, just little shacks slapped together or plain buildings with tables and chairs strewn about. Why doll it up if people just go there to talk with their friends? You don't need to make a hard sell about appearances in such a case.
Silva was lamenting how ugly Tirana has become since the shanty kiosks have taken over. They are ubiquitous and you never see any Albanian goods. (This begs the question, "What does Albania make?") Silva says the government allows it because they can charge a lot for space. Some people obviously have money. There are no Eastern European cars on the road, but plenty of Mercedes.
I'm interested to talk with Henry about his outlook on traveling at 38. He looks young and moves faster than slothful me. He said the Peace Corps was the best thing that ever happened to him. He got a scholarship to graduate school because he was a returning PCV with access to these other jobs and opportunities.
Henry had to also deal with his water coming to life, to fill buckets, do the mud hut thing.
Maybe Silva is right about this driver's license rumor being wrong, but bad driving is endemic here. Crossing the street in Tirana was at times downright scary. Bad driving habits make me think of Asia. Lots of things in Albania remind me of Asia. Silva wasn't happy to hear that.
There's no tourist infrastructure here that I can see. No tourist info offices anywhere (certainly not at the airport). The local buses in Tirana have no signs on them and there are no signs on the street designating where the stops are. Locals just know while tourists are thrown to the wolves. Information is king. PCVs are information gold mines.
If I was traveling with someone I wouldn't dread the buses much. In countries where travel is often travail (e.g. China, Russia, remote Indonesia, India) I prefer to be with company. The strange thing about leaving tomorrow is that it's feasible I could be in Hungary the next day, and this whole trip would be for 8 days--Japanese style.
I had the unpleasant experience in both Vlore and Tirana of trying to make domestic calls. You go to a barren, sad office with a couple of women behind prison bars laboring on 1950's rotary phones, sighing each time a connection isn't made, which is the norm. When you finally do get someone, the line sounds so weak and the connection so tenuous and delicate you must speak loudly and quickly over the clicks, grunts and heaves of the line.
Another irritant is that people quote prices in "old leks", though old leks ceased to be 25 years ago. The difference is 10 times less. Sometimes you hear it, sometimes not, making it all the more problematic. Even the change money gangs suffer from this problem. Vlore had a corner full of these guys. In Tirana there must be more than 150 since I had a look around the block they operate--across the street from the bank. They're very open about it, so I guess there's nothing illegal about it.
When you find someone who speaks English in Albania, which is often the norm, surprisingly, questions get confusing because the head gestures are the opposite than I'm used to. "No" is the drop of a head down (and a finger wagging) and "Yes" is--the best description I read somewhere describes it as someone tilting their head to get water out of their ears.
Tirana has several offices from airlines I have never heard of. Hemus Air? (to Sofia) Adria Air? (to Ljubljana) Ada Air (to who knows where?) and I think it was Hemus Air that has connecting service to Leipzig. WHO needs to fly from Tirana to Leipzig? I'm not sure I want to meet such a person.
Vlore, like all Albanian towns I've passed through, is really ugly, depressing, absolutely filthy, and a pit to stay in if passing through. However, at dusk the streets come alive with people and a soft buzz is felt from being seaside.
So much needs to be done in Albania. Every aspect of the infrastructure needs to be overhauled. It appears that government wants to go slow and their corruption delays everything. I heard a couple of times that Albanians don't really want to work. If that much work was in front of me, I'd shy from it, too. The land itself is very mountainous, very beautiful. It's overgrown, neglected and forlorn but all the more romantic and appealing. (Albania is for lovers?)
A little Albanian: "Shpirtim" means "my sweetheart".
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